Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

The lyrics of Pulp

When Jarvis Cocker formed Pulp in 1978, little did he know his motley crew of outcast alt-pop weirdos would become one of the defining acts of the Britpop movement and cement themselves in the privileged position of unofficial representatives of their hometown of Sheffield.

The eccentric frontman has frequently emphasised the importance of locality in music throughout his career. From recording much of the band's first three albums - recently reissued on Fire Records - at the city's Input and FON studios, giving NME magazine the grand tour in 1993, and charting his own musical map of the district on his weekly BBC 6 Music show, Jarvis has always remained faithful to his roots.

His potent lyrical style has proved his strongest instrument in this from day one. One of the band's early demos is intriguingly titled 'I Scrubbed the Crabs that Killed Sheffield' in reference to a job once held by the vocalist at Castle Market. Although tales from further afield may have slipped in along the way, the group's identity has always remained very much anchored in South Yorkshire, as evidenced by the release of 'Wickerman', one of their most blatant odes to Sheffield, on their final studio album, 2001's We Love Life. There is indeed much ingenuity in Alex Turner's lyrical tributes to Sheffield, but the countless references and allusions offered through Cocker's masterful control of the art provides a dense and varied opportunity for closer examination.

Perhaps one of the most immediately obvious of Pulp's hometown celebrations can be found in the seductively titled epic 'Sheffield: Sex City', originally featured as a B-side to the 1992 single 'Babies'. Over eight and a half minutes Jarvis and keyboardist Candida Doyle describe a citywide orgasm, alluringly whispering the names of local districts including Frecheville, Intake, Wybourn and Park Hill. Try not to be too upset if your particular suburb doesn't get a mention.

The A-side receives the stamp of Sheffield identity too, the location of its lusty tale overtly defined in the opening line 'Well it happened years ago, when you lived on Stanhope Road,' situated just off Mansfield Road between Intake Primary School and the Royal Oak pub, where it's almost certain local lad Jarvis spent a good few hours nursing a pint of Wards Best Bitter in his younger years. 'My Legendary Girlfriend', taken from 1992's Separations, offers a similarly brief mention of a female companion's living quarters, this time in the Pitsmoor district.

But not all references are quite so fond, with even the now demolished Kelvin Flats finding immortalisation in its own derogatory song. Spurred on by an infectious Russell Senior guitar riff, Jarvis wittily mocks the antisocial behaviour that became synonymous with the Walkley high rises, speaking of 'children of the future, conceived in the toilets of Meadowhall... rolling empty cans down the stairwell.' Similar themes run through 'Catcliffe Shakedown', a harsh yet amusing put-down drawn from memories of nearby band practice sessions, in which Jarvis compares the area to war-torn Bosnia and mimics the intimidating dialect of local kids.

Equally sentimental and depreciating, the aforementioned 'Wickerman' is perhaps the band's magnum opus to the city, and anyone who has ever lived in Sheffield would do well to stay completely dry-eyed throughout its eight minute battle to capture the spirit of a city trapped between dank industrialisation, modern city living and natural beauty. Jarvis' characteristically freestyle whispers and poetic mutterings take in Broomhall, the Leadmill, Forge Dam, the Wicker and Lady's Bridge, itself immortilised in music by close friend and fellow Sheffield musician Richard Hawley in 2007.

At other times imagination and speculation can be just as interesting as direct reference. Long-term residents will find it impossible to imagine the sleazy kitchen-sink-dramas of 'Razzmatazz' or 'Death Goes to the Disco' being played out anywhere other than a particular corner of Gleadless Valley or Parson Cross. 'Past the leisure centre, left at the lights' ('Joyriders') will conjure up images of a drive around Ponds Forge onto Commercial Street, and can the meeting point proposed in 'Disco 2000' be any other than the original Goodwin Fountain, once located at the top of Fargate?

Of course the vividly descriptive nature of Jarvis' lyrics mean that any song that doesn't definitively confirm its scene can be interpreted in this way. It would be interesting to engage the writer in conversation in order to discover the real life influences behind songs like 'F.E.E.L.I.N.G.C.A.L.L.E.D.L.O.V.E.', 'David's Last Summer' and 'Acrylic Afternoons'. Until Jarvis writes his tell-all biography and gives us definitive answers, we can still enjoy the wonderful discography of Pulp, safe in the knowledge we have just a little extra insight than fans from anywhere else. Now here's hoping they don't forget Don Valley on their next UK tour!

Next from Sound

City Daydream Songs.

You've all been there. You're in a public place, and one of your favourite songs starts to ooze out of invisible speakers. Your first…

More Sound

Next article in issue 52

Filmreel Looking back at Doc/Fest 2012.

To be perfectly honest, documentaries are still a source of discomfort to me - a sort of lifelong ambivalence which remains practically…

More Music

More Music